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Rob Sheldon on origin of life as a “theoretically fertile dead end”


Rob Sheldon, our physics color commentator, responds to that recent characterization of OoL research by Natalie Elliot:

There is a place for a summary of the status quo, and that is what this piece is. Despite it’s many OoL options, all of them are dog-eared, worn-out status quo theories. Darwin is status quo. RNA-world is status quo, as are metabolism-first, both-at-the-same-time, warm ponds, Prigogine’s maximum entropy flow, and Shannon information. Schroedinger’s mystical musings aren’t status quo so much as a romantic escape from materialism, but even that escape is repeated often enough to become status quo. It is refreshing that Stenger’s views on inevitable negentropy didn’t make the cut–so perhaps Granville Sewell’s critiques are having an effect on the field.

The Long Ascent, Volume 2

In my own OoL research, I’ve been intrigued by information flow, which is to be distinguished from the origin of information. In that context, Sara Imari Walker seems to be on a similar winding path away from materialism towards an information-first meeting point. The key point is that information concentration, and not mechanism, is the essential first step of OoL. Mathematically stated, the gradients of the entropy drive the non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, not the entropy or the energy per se. A different set of tools needs to be developed for this endeavor, which has a few things in common with England’s attempt to duplicate Prigogine.

So there is progress, even in this status quo report. What hinders the field presently is an unstated reliance on materialism and its attendant mechanism, when information is manifestly non-material. What we need to make progress in OoL are matter-free tools for manipulating information: understanding its flow, its gradients, and its concentration. And that turns out to be Granville’s wish list too.

Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II.

See also: At Aeon: As a discipline, origin of life is “World’s most theoretically fertile dead end” The author, a science writer, keeps orbiting the topic of moving beyond Darwin. Her survey of the scene suggests that researchers are moving beyond Darwin in a variety of different directions. Not clear how they will all meet up…


The Science Fictions series at your fingertips – origin of life What we do and don’t know about the origin of life.


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